Sunday, 7 December 2014

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Royal Opera House, 5 December 2014

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Friday 5 December 2014


Sailor                                                           ED LYON
Isolde                                                          NINA STEMME
Brangaene                                                  SARAH CONNOLLY
Kurwenal                                                     IAIN PATERSON
Tristan                                                         STEPHEN GOULD
Melot                                                           NEAL COOPER
King Marke                                                 JOHN TOMLINSON
Shepherd                                                    GRAHAM CLARK
Steersman                                                  YURI YURCHUK

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Conductor                                                    ANTONIO PAPPANO

Director                                                         CHRISTOF LOY

It is perhaps a good thing that TRISTAN UND ISOLDE is performed comparatively rarely, as it would be difficult to cope with the emotional strain of seeing and hearing it more than once a year! (Once every five years in the case of this production).

This is the second time I have seen the production, and I still love the actual staging - spare, minimalist, stripped to its essentials, so that the drama and the music flourish unimpeded.  I realise it caused (and still causes) some controversy, and I am happy  the unnecessary canoodling between Kurwenal and Brangaene has been toned down so that it is no longer obtrusive. ( I didn't see the point, but that was my only criticism of the production).

As I said when I wrote about this production last time, nothing much 'happens' in TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, in terms of stage business.....the first act is narrative, the exposition....and, crucially, it is about Isolde's misunderstanding of her own feelings, not being able to admit that she doesn't hate Tristan, she loves him with a deep passion, and this is why she sees death as the only way out. And how eloquently Nina Stemme conveyed all the tangled complications of Isolde's feelings - angry, passionate, almost hysterical at times, and bitterness at the beginning of her confrontation with Tristan It isn't only that she has a beautiful voice, she brings such commitment to the characterisation of Isolde, the storms of emotion that batter her soul. At the beginning of the opera, she is wearing a white (wedding?) dress, then changes into black for her confrontation with Tristan. The simplicity of the costumes (for all the characters) is another characteristic of this production.

What I have said about Nina Stemme in fact applies to all the performers - they all meshed wonderfully together, with excellent rapport, and all were experts at characterisation. Sarah Connolly in beautiful voice as Brangaene, her mezzo a perfect foil to the soprano of Nina Stemme, and a very sympathetic, warm character, who obviously has her own ideas as to how deep-rooted Isolde's aversion to Tristan really is.

Stephen Gould distinguished himself as Tristan, rising to heights of intensity   especially in the delirious ravings of Act III, almost frightening, it was so believable. He also created a good balance of tenderness and passion during the Love Duet . I love this image from Act II - she starts setting the table for them, but then they get so involved in their discussion of the nature of love that they forget about it....

Iain Patterson was good as Kurwenal, bluff, soldierly, managing to convey his dislike of Isolde (and Brangaene) with body language as much as tone of voice. But - I am very much afraid we are witnessing the beginning of John Tomlinson's vocal decline. True, the shakiness of his voice did add to the poignancy of King Marke's lament (I always grieve for King Marke, whom Wagner portrays as a much more noble character than his counterpart in the medieval sources). But he just no longer has the ringing sonority he had when he was in his prime, although he did convey very movingly the idea of an older man crushed by grief. Think how sad it is for him - he loved and admired Tristan, he adored Isolde, even though he had apparently never tried to consummate the marriage.....and they repay him like this.

I have to say that this time I was rather disappointed with Pappano's conducting of the Prelude, it seemed rather hesitant and tentative, and didn't immediately plunge you into the world of strange chromaticism that Tristan and Isolde inhabit. But I can't fault the orchestral playing in later Acts - the Love Duet opens out onto a plateau of utter gorgeousness. (Pity about the idiot behind me who had FORGOTTEN TO TURN OFF THEIR PHONE).

I'll finish with an extract from Swinburne's TRISTRAM OF LYONESSE which he could not have written without Wagner. (Probably reading Swinburne's version wasn't the best way to come down from my Wagner-induced high, but there you are!!)

And with strong trembling fingers she strained fast

His head into her bosom; till at last
Satiate with sweetness of that burning bed,
His eyes afire with tears, he raised his head
And laughed into her lips; and all his heart
Filled hers; then face from face fell, and apart
Each hung on each with panting lips, and felt
Sense into sense and spirit in spirit melt.
   "Hast thou no sword? I would not live till day,
O love, this night and we must pass away,
It must die soon, and let not us die late."
   "Take then my sword and slay me; nay, but wait
Till day be risen; what, wouldst thou think to die
Before the light take hold upon the sky?"
   "Yea, love; for how shall we have twice, being twain,
This very night of love's most rapturous reign?
Live thou and have thy day, and year by year
Be great, but what shall I be? Slay me here;
Let me die not when love lies dead, but now
Strike through my heart: nay, sweet, what heart hast thou?
Is it so much I ask thee, and spend my breath
In asking? nay, thou knowest it is but death.
Hadst thou true heart to love me, thou wouldst give
This: but for hate's sake thou wilt let me live."

Friday, 5 September 2014

Edinburgh Festival, 2014 - Part 1

I attended these performances at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2014. This is 'emotion recollected in tranquility, since I saw them a week ago, and have only now found time to write them up.

Monday 25 August   Queen's Hall

Music from Terezienstadt/Terezin

Anne-Sofie von Otter      mezzo-soprano
Daniel Hope                    violin
Bengt Forsberg               piano
Bebe Risenfors                accordion/double bass/guitar

The tragedy of Terezin - artistic flowering in defiance of the wretched circumstances.The  Nazis used this as propaganda, but, as a survivor later stated - 'they knew they were going to kill us anyway, so they just let us get on with it - dancing under the gallows'. It is heart-breaking to reflect how many gifted artists, musicians and writers were  cut off in their prime, 

Anne Sofie von Otter has also made a CD commemorating the musicians of Terezin - the programme was a selection of the music written by the inmates, mainly songs. but also some extracts of chamber music. I particular liked the Serenade for Violin and Piano by Robert Dauber (1922-1945).

The group also performed music by the best-known inmates of Terezin, Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, both murdered by the Nazis in 1944.  I was especially impressed by Ullmann's STURMLIED, a setting of a poem by Ricarda Huch, with a very Schumann-like piano postlude. I have included a clip of Susanna Proskura singing this, as there doesn't appear to be one of Anne-Sofie von Otter.

Another piece that particular struck most of the audience was the bitterly ironic anonymous TEREZIN-LIED, based on a song from Emmerich Kalman's Countess Maritza, relating how everyone enjoys their life in their beloved Theresienstadt.....

Finally, I will draw attention to the beautifully simple and moving songs by Ilse Weber 1903-1944. The recital started with the heart-rending ICH WANDRE DURCH THERESIENSTADT. (This version is sung by Bente Kahan, and has English subtitles).

And here is Anne Sofie von Otter singing Weber's WIEGALA - a lullaby which she is said to have sung as she voluntarily accompanied the children she was caring for on their final journey to Auschwitz.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

MARIA STUARDA, Royal Opera House, 5 July 2014

Gaetano Donizetti MARIA STUARDA, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 5 July 2014


Queen Elizabeth I                                           Carmen Gianattasio

George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury            Matthew Rose
(Giorgio Talbot)

William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer             Jeremy Carpenter
(Guglielmo Cecil)

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester                 Ismael Jordi
(Roberto, Conte di Leicester)

Hanna Kennedy, Maria's maid                    Kathleen Wilkinson

Mary Queen of Scots                               .     Joyce DiDonato
(Maria Stuarda) 

Executioner                                                       Peter Dineen 

 Protestors, Courtiers, Politicians, Crowd

 Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

 Bertrand de Billy

 Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier  

Mary Queen of Scots

Queen Elizabeth I

I will begin by explaining something of the background in case people are not familiar with Schiller's play The opera is a very condensed version of the play, reducing it to a few essential scenes, and of course concentrating on the confrontation between the Queens. The whole first act of Schiller's play is set in Maria's prison in Fotheringay, and contains a scene in which she confronts Paulet, the gaoler, and further scenes in which her own history is gradually revealed - including the fact that she was complicit in the murder of her husband, Darnley. 

Donizetti's opera dispenses with all this and starts with what in Schiller's play is the second Act, introducing Elizabeth and her courtiers as she decides whether to accept the marriage proposal of the Dauphin of France - and is faced with a more immediate decision.....what should be the fate of Mary Stuart. The scene ends, as in Schiller, with Leicester urging her to agree to meet with Maria.

The compression means that the open of Scene II is our FIRST introduction to Maria:  the scene begins with her thinking nostalgically  of her happy childhood in France. Elizabeth and her entourage arrive almost immediately, and it is now that the confrontation takes place - with disastrous consequences for Maria. 

Schiller's final scene is also omitted, and the opera ends with Maria's execution. Schiller's dramatic purpose was rather different from Donizetti's - our sympathies are with Maria, BUT at the end Elizabeth is left alone, everyone has deserted her, even Leicester, and Lord Shrewsbury resigns as her Chancellor. She has done what she had to do, but it has cost her everything.

So after this short preamble - what of last night's performance? It was a stunning triumph for Joyce DiDonato, and both she and Carmen Giannatasio shone in the confrontation scene - the point is that Maria throws her life away for the sake of insulting Elizabeth, and DiDonato's Maria obviously felt that it was worth it! I will never forget the soaring high notes on which she sang 'Vil bastarda!' Or the venom with which Elizabeth responds that Maria has effectively signed her own death warrant.

Donizetti has reduced the number of male characters, and the ones that remain are also rather undifferentiated - I imagine this must have been his intention, in order to focus on the rival queens. This being said, I found that all three male characters that remain were well performed, with Matthew Rose as a sympathetic Talbot, Ismael Jordi as Leicester a smooth-voiced tenor. 

The execution scene is the scene is which the mezzo-soprano really comes into her own,  it has all been building up to this.  I especially loved her rendering of the Confession. (Quando di luce rosea/il giorno a me splendea....) This is why Donizetti omits Schiller's last scene, as he didn't want to divert attention from the vocal splendours and pathos of the execution scene.

I will say a few words about the staging, as it has given rise to a certain amount of controversy. Well actually it gave rise to an absolutely disgraceful outbreak of booing, which was completely unjustified. It isn't a brilliant production - it is minimalist, and I like this as it enables us to concentrate on the psychological drama and the interaction between the protagonists - the confrontation between the Queens is the high point of the opera, and we don't need to be distracted from that.

The stage is almost bare, and everyone except the two Queens is in modern dress. This is another way of underlining their status as heroines.....but also their isolation.

As you can see here, Elizabeth has removed her wig - this is a reference to the historical Elizabeth, who towards the end of her life did always appear in public wearing a red wig and an elaborate farthingale - like many absolute monarchs, inspiring her subjects with respect.  

As I've already indicated, Donizetti reduced the number of male characters, and here they appear as 'men in suits'.

Mary's prison is even more sparse, and the execution chamber does present a bleak aspect - surely it SHOULD look like this, with the harsh light falling on the victim!

The execution scene also contained a poignant touch of realism - Maria is made to discard her heavy velvet dress, so she is standing there in her shift, and then the executioner CUTS HER HAIR - this is so sad, as she stands there feeling her bare neck.

So I was really shocked and horrified when the booing started - the boos were directed at the production team, as everyone had, quite rightly, been loud in their applause for the performance, especially for the heroine of the evening, Joyce DiDonato. It wasn't a bad production, although it wasn't brilliant either - it was designed to emphasise the salient points of this psychological drama, and worked reasonably well. I tried to remonstrate with one of the ringleaders, but to no avail. 

My advice then? Go to HEAR this anyway, even if you don't want to SEE it!! 

Monday, 16 June 2014

People's Assembly, March Against Austerity. June 21

You are invited to join the March Against Austerity convened by the People's Assembly.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The garden today, 9 June 2014

Blackcurrant sage - beautiful scent!

I just love these violas!

Rose Saints Felicite et Perpetuee

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ecosocialism Conference, 7 June


11:30 – 12:00 – Registration

12:00 – 12:45 – Introductory plenary with Natalie Bennett (Green Party), Daniel Tanuro (SR), Clara Paillard (PCS and SP) and a video from Fukushima

12:45 – 13:00 – Break

13:00 – 14:30 – Workshops
• Fracking with Eva Barker (Frack-Off Manchester & RS21) and Steve Hall (anti-fracking campaigner & SR)
• Zero growth and productivism with Gareth Dale (Brunel University) and Ozlem Onaran (Economist & SR)
• Workshop on Food sovereignty and land grabs with Graciela Romero (War on Want) and Derek Wall (Green Party International Co-ordinator)
• The ruling class and climate change with Alan Thornett (SR) and Amy Gilligan (RS21)

14:30 – 15:30 – Lunch Break

15:30 – 17:00 – Workshops
• Climate crisis: revolution and alternatives with London Front de Gauche and Estelle Cooch (Cambridge NUS & RS21)
• Energy and million climate jobs with Chris Baugh (PCS) and Brian Ashley from South Africa
• Transport with John Stewart (Hackan and CCC) and John McDonnell MP
• Marx’ Ecology with Sean Thompson (Left Unity) and John Cowsill (author & RS21)

17:00 – 17:15 – Break

17:15 – 18:00 – Closing plenary with Jonathan Neale (RS21), Ewa Jasiewicz (Fuel Poverty Action and Reclaim the Power) and Fiona Brookes (CCC)

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The garden today (May 20 2014))

This is the jasmine that hangs down the wall outside my flat. Can you imagine how beautiful it smells!!

The lavender is flourishing

And finally the violas

Thursday, 13 March 2014

RIP Bob Crow 13/06/1961-11/03/2014

We are all devastated by the news of the death of Bob Crow. He fought for the members of his union, the RMT, but also for workers in  general. We are very much the poorer for his loss.
The RMT has opened a Book of Condolence, we should all sign it to pay our last respects.BOOK OF CONDOLENCE FOR BOB CROW

Here is the tribute to him at Covent Garden Underground Station.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

PETER GRIMES, English National Opera, 1 February 2014

Benjamin Britten; PETER GRIMES
English National Opera, 1 February 2014

PETER GRIMES                                           Stuart Skelton
ELLEN ORFORD                                          Elza van den Heever
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE                              Iain Paterson
AUNTIE                                                           Rebecca de Pont Davies
FIRST NIECE                                                 Rhian Lois
SECOND NIECE                                           Mary Bevan
BOB BOLES, Methodist                             Michael Colvin
SWALLOW, Lawyer                                     Matthew Best
MRS SEDLEY                                               Felicity Palmer
Rev HORACE ADAMS                               Timothy Robinson
NED KEENE, Apothecary                         Leigh Melrose
HOBSON, carter                                          Matthew Trevino
JOHN, the apprentice                                TImothy Kirrage
DOCTOR CRABBE                                     Ben Craze

Chorus of townspeople and fishermen
CONDUCTOR                                               Edward Gardner
DIRECTOR                                                    David Alden

A stunning performance of great intensity, with orchestra, conductor and singers working so seamlessly together, the chorus as vital a character as the soloists. Indeed, Britten saw it as the individual against the collective - which is not quite how George Crabbe saw it; Britten does make Grimes into a more ambiguous character, rather than an out-and-out villain. (There is thus more room for character development, and at one some point - which I shall come to - Grimes appears as much victim as villain).

But let me start at the beginning, with a few words about the staging, which  is quite minimalist; an almost bare stage for the investigation into the death of Grimes' apprentice, with the Chorus - suspicious, hostile villagers - at the back of the stage as spectators.   Grimes (Stuart Skelton) climbs on the table to make his point to the hostile witnesses and spectators.

The second scene also is set indoors, the set later becomes the Boar - 

complete with an Auntie (Rebecca du Pont Davies)  straight out of Berlin cabaret. Nothing to do with PETER GRIMES, but a wonderful characterisation!! (The  characterisation seems to be based on a specific painting by Otto Dix)

Photo by Roy Tan,  West End Theatre

I like the little details of staging and characterisation, such as the fact that Hobson the carter is drunk under the table, but not so drunk that he can't get up and say 'Cart's full, Sir', when he realises what the job is, and the characterisation of Ned Keene as a 'bit of a wide boy'.  The scene shows Grimes at odds with the village even before his new apprentice arrives, and he does nothing to set things right, rushing off with the boy at once, provoking the cry of contempt from the villagers - 'Home!! You call that home?'

 The minimalist staging continues throughout - perhaps the emptiness reflects the emptiness of the souls of many of the characters, (with the exception of Ellen and Balstrode). There are  few scene changes, although the sea is indicated in the first scene of Act II, with Ellen and the boy on the beach. There's a poignant moment when Ellen (Elza van den Heever) takes her hat off and dances around in sheer exuberance - but it doesn't last, as she notices how quiet the boy is.

Stuart Skelton is unsurpassable as Grimes; the role takes the tenor through a whole  range of vocal colouring, from sullenness and anger in the first Act, to beauty of tone in the sad, lyrical 'in dreams I've built myself some kindlier home'...because that's all it is, dreams. This is a side of Grimes' nature that the villagers never see, and he is never able to let it flourish....

In dreams I've built myself some kindlier home
Warm in my heart and in a golden calm 
Where there’ll be no more fear and no more storm. 
And she will soon forget her schoolhouse ways 
Forget the labour of those weary days 
Wrapped round in kindness like September haze. 
The learned at their books have no more store 
Of wisdom than we’d close behind our door. 
Compared with us the rich man would be poor. 
I’ve seen in stars the life that we might share: 
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore, 
A fair white doorstep, and a woman’s care.  

Fine sentiments, and beautifully expressed, although Grimes has been seen not only terrorising the apprentice but striking Ellen.....but Britten gives the tenor  and the orchestra such beautiful music to express this impossible dream. 

He is well matched by the mellow, warm tones of Elza van den Heever as Ellen. Ellen too is a complex character, and Elza van den Heever gave a subtle, nuanced performance. The quartet with Auntie and the nieces was very moving.

  Praise also for Iain Paterson as the old sea-dog Balstrode, who stands aside from the rest of the villagers and is not entirely unsympathetic to Grimes.

All the cast displayed a very high level of musicianship and acting. Felicity Palmer deserves special mention for her presentation of the awful Mrs. Sedley. (Her malice is such that even Ned Keene, (Leigh Melrose) no friend of Grimes, feel compelled to find a reasonable explanation for his absence and the disappearance of the boy.

(Picture by Tristram Kenton)

 And now I come to the Chorus, the group of bigoted villagers with whom Grimes is at odds. The level of hostility is palpable, right from the beginning, building up to the scene in which they repeatedly shout his name - they become a howling mob, a many-headed hydra - er - waving Union Jacks? Another directorial innovation, which does make them more menacing (think BNP, for instance).  This is the point at which Grimes seems to be as much victim as villain - if you look at the actual words they sing, it seems as if it is not really about the apprentice at all, it goes deeper than that.
Who holds himself apart 
Lets his pride rise. 
Him who despises us 
We’ll destroy. 
And cruelty becomes 
His enterprise. 
Him who despises us 
We’ll destroy.

I refer again to the superb musicianship of the entire ensemble, the Storm Sea Interlude especially was very intense and frightening.

I love this opera, and I loved this performance.